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Understanding how Big Data can Help Improve Teaching, With 2 Examples

by Gil Allouche on June 12, 2014


We’ve Been Hearing a lot About Big Data Lately, but What Does it Mean for Educators?

Wikipedia defines Big Data as, “a blanket term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications.” Okay, that’s nice. But how does this relate to education?

Big data can change the way teachers teach and students learn. Finding ways to provide tailored instruction to individual students has been very difficult in the past, and many students have failed to reach anywhere near their potential as a result. However, big data can provide the tools necessary for teachers to better understand students’ needs, which in turn can give students better opportunities for success.

Word Cloud "Big Data"Image Source:

What are some ways that big data is impacting education and improving teaching and learning? Here are a couple practical examples.

1. Improving the speed and accuracy of feedback

In the past, it has taken days and weeks for students to get feedback on assignments. This is extremely detrimental to the learning process. Slow feedback means that students are often times underprepared for tests and lack the necessary comprehension of a subject to really excel. As schools continue to adopt the use of IPads and other devices*, a whole datastream of information becomes available both to the teacher and student that can give feedback on a students’ performance. This feedback would go far beyond establishing a grade for the student and provide insights into why a student selected the answer they did and identify patterns that the teacher can use to adjust lessons to better meet the needs of the students.

This kind of individual assessment would take a significant amount of a teacher’s time to perform with each student, but big data technology provides means whereby student feedback can be almost instantaneous.
(*Sorry, you need a WSJ subscription to read this particular article).

2. Improving Teaching

Quick feedback increases both student learning and teacher preparation. With access to the students’ results in a comprehensive, quick way, teachers are better able to tailor their lessons to the needs of the students. Instead of waiting for test time to find out areas of low comprehension, teachers can find out before they teach their next lesson. Better teaching results in better learning. Big data also gives administrators better tools with which they can analyze teaching effectiveness.

Example 1: At Roosevelt Elementary School near San Francisco, teachers use software called DIBELS with reading assignments to better determine which students need help and what areas they need help in. Teachers at the school need to study the analytics, and from there they can help the students who need it. We’ve seen time and again that simply measuring teachers by standardized test scores is an ineffective method. It most often leads to decreased student learning because of the sole focus of excelling on the test and nothing else. With a variety of different tools to measure teaching excellence, school officials can better evaluate teachers and, if needed, make the necessary changes.

3. Improving Learning

As I mentioned above, quicker feedback improves student outcomes. The pupil can immediately see where they excelled and where they struggled and then take the necessary actions. That data may even be used to keep college students from dropping out.

Example 2: At Rio Salado College, administrators started a big data early intervention program that tracked students’ progress and alerted them to when students were at risk of dropping out. Eventually, the college saw a 40% dip in dropout rates, giving students a better chance at succeeding. Over time, big data will also give instructors insights into recurring student struggles which can help the instructor provide unique, personalized teaching for students. Because of the teaching improvements as well, students will benefit from lessons tailored more to their specific needs. That information can also be important for teachers in succeeding years.

4. Privacy

A major concern schools will face as they implement this kind of technology will be how they protect the privacy of students. People are becoming increasingly concerned about their online privacy. It’s especially important to address privacy in school settings where we’re seeing an increase in bullying. Imagine the harm that could be done to a student if poor performance were leaked to another student. And how could negative performance information potentially affect a students’ ability to attend college or succeed in a career if the data fell into the wrong hands? It’s more important than ever that schools implement the necessary means to keep students information safe under all circumstances.


Some would argue that the measure of a school’s success in education isn’t how many students graduate, but rather how much students learn and what they are able to do with that knowledge. Graduation rates are still very important and generally provide a clear picture of the students who did, in fact, learn while at school. They can be given too much importance, though, if the focus is on graduation rather than learning. With the plethora of managed services now offered by big data in the cloud, most districts and schools can afford to implement big data without getting involved in the technical aspects of big data implementation. This will increase both learning rates and graduation rates.

The adoption of big data technology in the school system will take time as many schools face limited resources, and privacy concerns will need to be addressed thoroughly. However, when the right balance is found, big data may prove to be an invaluable resource both for teachers and students throughout the learning process.

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
Visual Technology Fosters Increased Comprehension and Retention for Newly-Empowered Students
Instructional Technologies CAN Improve Learning Outcomes and Help Address the Challenges Education Faces
New Research Validates Effectiveness of Adaptive Learning


Gil Allouche is the Vice President of Marketing at Qubole. Gil began his marketing career as a product strategist at SAP while earning his MBA at Babson College and is a former software engineer.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Big Data Queen June 13, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Gil, very informative article. We are certainly seeing more companies realize the importance of big data. HPCC Systems from LexisNexis provides an open source solution that can help companies derive insights from massive data sets. HPCC Systems provides proven solutions to handle what are now called Big Data problems, and have been doing so for more than a decade. Their built-in analytics libraries for Machine Learning and integration with BI tools allows for a complete solution for ETL, data mining and reporting. For more info visit:

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